People often think of a diet as a specific weight-loss plan, but diet is simply the types and amounts of food we eat.
A good diet must include a balance of several food groups, as no single group can provide everything we need for good health.
With more than 2 out of every 3 American adults now considered overweight or obese, healthful eating habits are more important than ever.
There is so much information available that finding a suitable option can be overwhelming, but a few simple changes can make a diet more healthful and reduce the risk of numerous medical problems.
What is healthful eating?
A balanced diet is central to healthful eating.
Having a balanced diet means choosing from all five main food groups, in the right quantities.
Examples of whole grains are wholemeal bread, pasta, and cereals, in which each grain includes the germ and bran.
To make sure the grains are whole grains, look for the word "whole" or "whole grain" on the nutritional information on the packaging.
Fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Choosing a variety of colors can help maximize the intake of nutrients.
The American Heart Association recommend consuming 8 or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily. This equates to about 4.5 cups per day for the average person who consumes around 2,000 calories.
Juices labeled "100 percent" are considered part of this food group, but eating whole fruits or vegetables is better, as it will provide more fiber.
Vital for repairing tissues in the body, many protein-rich foods also contain high levels of minerals like iron, magnesium, and zinc.
Excellent sources of protein include meats, fish, and eggs. Beans, nuts, quorn, and soya are protein options for those on a vegetarian diet.
A calcium-rich diet promotes healthy bones and teeth. Dairy products are good sources of calcium. Low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese are recommended.
Fats are important for brain health, energy, absorption of certain vitamins, and for skin, hair, and joint health.
Saturated fats are present in cream, fatty meat, and fried foods. Too much saturated fat can lead to heart disease.
Unsaturated fats are present in avocado and oily fish. They help reduce the "bad" cholesterol in blood.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommend that healthy fats should make up less than 30 percent of total calories.
Sugars occur naturally in some foods, such as fruits, or they can be added as a sweetener. Too much sugar can lead to weight gain, heart problems, blood sugar imbalances, and other health issues.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommend limiting added sugar to 6 teaspoons a day or less for women, and 9 teaspoons a day for men.
Tips for healthful eating
Choosing from all the food groups will not guarantee a balanced diet. Here are six tips to help you eat your way to better health.
Tip 1: Manage portion size
People of different ages, genders, and activity levels need different amounts of food, but many people take in more energy than they use. Researchers believe there is a between large portion size and obesity.
Examples of servings are one slice of bread and one wedge of melon.
Paying attention to what a serving is, how many calories are in a serving, and how much you are eating can make the difference between obesity and maintaining a healthy weight.
Tip 2: Eat fresh and avoid processed
Fresh foods offer more nutrients and fewer additives.
Processed foods are thought to make up 70 percent of the average American diet.
Fresh foods are more likely to be "nutrient rich," while processed foods are often "energy-rich," with added fats and sugars.
Whole foods, such as fresh fruit, are a good source of vitamins and minerals.
Processed foods not only contain added ingredients, including dyes and preservatives, but the processing itself can destroy nutrients.
Tip 3: Limit added sugars
Naturally occurring sugars include fructose, found in fruit, and lactose, in dairy products.
Adding sugar to foods and drinks enhances the flavor but adds little or no nutritional value.
Replacing sweetened sodas with sparkling water, and drinking alcohol in moderation can further reduce excess calories. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend limiting alcohol intake to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
Condiments such as ketchup can also provide more calories than expected.
Tip 4: Replace animal fats in the diet
Animal produce is often high in saturated fats. These are difficult for the body to break down, so levels of harmful cholesterol in the body can rise, potentially leading to heart disease.
Unsaturated fats are found in oily fish and nuts, and these are more health, taken in moderation.
To reduce the amount of unhealthy fat in the diet:
- choose low-fat meat
- cook meat and chicken without the skin
- grill or boil meat instead of frying
- use vegetable oil rather than animal fat
- replace some meat servings with oily fish, nuts, beans, or legumes
Tip 5: Sodium down, potassium up
Limiting the intake of processed foods will reduce sodium intake, as salt is often added during processing.
For flavor, try replacing salt with herbs such as basil, rosemary, garlic, oregano, paprika, and cayenne, or low-salt condiments such a yellow mustard.
Tip 6: Add calcium and vitamin D
Calcium is crucial for strengthening and maintaining the bone structure. Vitamin D enables the body to absorb calcium.
Good sources of calcium include:
- dairy produce
- collard greens
- white beans
Dietary sources do not provide enough vitamin D for the body. Sunlight is necessary to help the body synthesize vitamin D.
Exposing some bare skin to the sunlight each day will help maintain levels of calcium and vitamin D.
For best results, always follow a healthy diet alongside an active lifestyle.